That LCD Soundsystem’s newest album is as good as anything they made before their self-imposed exile began back in 2011 is almost not worth saying. That was the point of breaking up in those blissful late-Obama years, before the idea that you wouldn’t cash in was a tad less unthinkable. James Murphy and Co. had made such spectacular albums for the vinyl’n’Pitchfork crowd that, so the myth goes, Murphy simply chose to sidestep the limelight and call it quits in spectacular fashion at Madison Square Garden.
And now they’re back with “American Dream,” which is, surprise, Very Good. It’s slower than what they’ve made before, but the world’s gotten faster, so that might be a relativity thing. Fans of James Murphy philosophizing about death and the internet over eight minutes of roughly the same beat will be pleased with this album. “Tonite” and “Emotional Haircut” are vintage LCD Soundsystem, and are a reminder of how fun this band can be when they want to be. “American Dream,” a song about the corrosive self-obsession that can doom a relationship before it really even starts, is, yeah, as sad as that sounded. And “How Do You Sleep?” might be one of the five best songs Murphy has ever recorded; booming music like that is almost a sort of stadium EDM.
But the interesting question with this album is how we’re supposed to think about it as a cultural product in terms of what preceded it. Murphy was emphatic that the band was done, finished, never coming back after their last tour, supporting the excellent “This Is Happening.” This charade is one we indulge at concerts — the encore only works because the band “leaves,” before being “persuaded” back onstage by cheers — but in careers, it’s a different story.
And was it just a charade? That would certainly affect the way we perceive an artist who, through irony, has spent his career wishing that he and everyone around him were more genuine. Did he really mean that the band was going away? Are to we to believe that, organically, he simply could not keep the songs in any longer? And how should that affect our interpretation of the album, if at all?
Is this an encore? It sure doesn’t feel that way. Murphy is only 47, and if the artists he references throughout the album — Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Alan Vega, and David Bowie — are any indication, he plans to keep at this for a while. By looking to the past, he’s trying to chart his future. Murphy worked with Bowie later in his career, and there was anyone who persisted in making interesting, challenging music long past his peak, it’s him. Is this how Murphy is trying to position himself?
Murphy was in an almost universally reviled movie a few years ago called “The Comedy,” a Tim and Eric “comedy” that just featured the two of them as aging, wealthy Williamsburg hipsters treating people like shit and doing dramatically childlike things to offset their fear of mortality. Murphy doesn’t speak in the movie, and you can’t even be sure he’s not supposed to be playing a version of himself. For better or worse, he’s still interrogating that character.